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THE MAKING OF THE ICE PRINCESS
In the beginning, it wasn't Chris Evert's idea to play tennis. She was a small, slight girl with a distaste for adventure and an acute shyness around strangers. She was born smack in the middle of the serene and ordered 1950s, came from the most loving and traditional of families, and liked to while away time with her younger sister, painting her nails and brushing each other's hair. The foment and tensions of the 1960s never reached her. She was so sheltered that she recalls her main worries were the boy sitting next to her in class, getting her first serve in, and deciding when she should start wearing a bra. Had her exacting father been an accountant rather than a public parks tennis teaching pro, Evert might have willed herself to become the best CPA of the twentieth century and not a tennis champion. She began her climb on a clay court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the age of five, hitting each ball that her father lobbed at her from a supermarket cart brimming with hundreds more.
An uncanny number of legendary athletes speak of having some monumental epiphany as a child, some unforgettable, crystalline moment at which they knew, absolutely knew, that they would go on to do remarkable things and, quite often, they just had to tell somebody about it. Evert's great tennis rival, Martina Navratilova of Czechoslovakia, was already dreaming sugar-plum visions of grandeur by age ten as the drab green commuter trains she rode went hurtling through suburban Prague towns of Dorbrichovice and Zsenory, Mokropsy and Radotin, whisking her toward her lessons with her dashing first coach, George Parma. Tennis star Billie Jean King, Evert's friend and frequent sounding board in the pros, vividly recalls "this burning, tingling, literally white-hot feeling" that came over her one day at five years old, when she was washing dishes with her mother: "All of a sudden I turned to my mother and I said, 'Mom, I am going to do something great one day! I know it! You just watch.' "
Chris Evert never evinced such certainty as a young girl. Neither did her disciplinarian father, Jimmy, the man who molded her. Jimmy Evert was a two-time U.S. age-group champion who won a tennis scholarship to the University of Notre Dame and notched the best finish of his short-lived postcollege career in 1942, winning the Canadian national championship. In many ways, Jimmy Evert was a character sprung straight from a Frank Capra movie, a man who advocated virtues such as clean living and humility, a doting tennis father who deftly walked the tightrope of having ambitions for his five children without ever making them the casualties of those dreams.
Jimmy Evert was a staunchly Catholic, conservative man who grew up in Chicago during the Great Depression, endured deprivations like canned food rations as a boy, and never seemed to abandon the rigorous self-discipline that the two enduring influences in his life--his faith and his austere upbringing--demanded. He saw his own father switch from farming to the banking business only to lose nearly everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Though Jimmy and his family lived across the street from the Chicago Town and Tennis Club, the Everts were never members. Jimmy earned his way onto the courts there (and later at the Chicago Armory, one of two indoor facilities in the city) by working as a ball boy for five cents an hour. From the start, tennis enthralled him. He often spent ten hours a day at the courts, sometimes stopping only to rush home for a quick dinner before hurrying back again, with his mother calling after him that he hadn't eaten enough.
By 1952, the same year he married Colette Thompson, a vivacious woman to whom he was introduced at a friend's wedding, Jimmy was working as the teaching pro at Holiday Park, a twenty-one-court municipal tennis facility in Fort Lauderdale. The features of Chicago and Jimmy's youth--the gunboat gray skies, biting winds, and shoulders hunched against the cold--were a distant memory. Jimmy's daily existence now featured bone-warming sun, swaying palms, and the white sand beaches of the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles away. Yet one of Jimmy's Holiday Park coworkers quickly nicknamed him "Lash" because of his no-nonsense habits. He routinely worked seven days a week, often twelve hours a day. His adult life settled into a contented orbit of work, church, and family, and the same was true for Colette and their five children: Drew, Chris, Jeanne, John, and Clare. Theirs was a quintessentially American, blue-collar existence. "Growing up, we were the most important thing in the world to my parents," Chris said. "What I remember most is the time, the love they gave us."
Jimmy Evert went to Mass daily, and so did Chris and her four siblings once they began Catholic school. Colette, who is as outgoing as Jimmy is introverted, worked in the school cafeteria and made Chris's tennis dresses. All the Evert children became state champions and age-group national finalists, and all of them eventually made careers in tennis, same as their dad. Chris, who was born on December 21, 1954, shared a childhood bedroom with her sister Jeanne, who is two years younger. The two girls were so close that they would reach across the space between their twin beds and hold hands when a noise frightened them in the middle of the night.
Jimmy thought it was important to take each of his children onto the courts at Holiday Park as soon as they were able to swing a racket. "There are a lot of great people associated with tennis," he always explained. "And besides, kids need goals. Kids without goals come home from school and just wander. It's not healthy. . . ." He continued, "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I like to have time to take my kids to the tennis courts and knock balls to them. Why, if a man can feed, clothe, and shelter his family, plus have good health and a lot of fun with his kids, what else does he need?
"Tennis opened some great doors for me. I thought maybe it would do the same for our kids."
Though Chris collected state and national age-group titles from ages eight to sixteen, any convictions about her future as a professional were slow to take hold. She was amassing junior titles, but often only narrowly, her mother says, pulling out finals victories on sheer determination.
The game that Chris's father taught her was a patient, no-frills baseline style that emphasized limiting errors more than going for flashy winners. Laurie Fleming, a childhood friend and tennis rival, says that for a long time there wasn't one shot in young Chris's arsenal that made anyone say, "Wow." Even Evert's signature two-handed backhand--her most lethal stroke throughout her career--developed by necessity, not as part of some grand design. Jimmy Evert says Chris was too small and weak to hold a racket with one hand when she first started to play. As she got older, Jimmy made several attempts to get her to adopt a one-handed backhand, but, seeing her revert to two hands once she was playing with friends, he finally said, "Forget it."
If Jimmy had any private, quietly percolating dreams that his daughter might someday mature into someone capable of playing the women's tour, they slowed when Margaret Court, the great Australian champion, came to Holiday Park in 1969 to practice for a nearby women's tournament. Chris was fourteen and still waiting for her first adolescent growth spurt. When Jimmy strolled over to one of the Holiday Park hard courts to watch Court hit with Judy Dalton, another established pro, he thought, "Why, Chrissie can't stay with them at all. They hit the ball so hard! And she's so darn small."
That was still Jimmy's opinion when Chris won another title--this one the national sixteen-and-under championship--and a sharp-eyed promoter named Clifford Brown telephoned him in September of 1970. Brown was looking to fill out the tournament field in the Carolinas International, his eight-player clay court tournament in Charlotte. He offered to send a Learjet to pick up Chrissie and her friend Laurie Fleming, another top junior player at Holiday Park. To Jimmy, the offer looked to be one of those opening doors that he had always spoken about, a way for his daughter to meet some great people in tennis. Thinking it would be a flattering, unexpected reward for Chris's hard work as well, Jimmy told Brown sure, his daughter could make the trip.
Knowing that Court, Nancy Richey, and Francoise Durr of France, all world-ranked players, would also be in the field, Colette sent Chrissie off to Charlotte with just one change of clothes.
"I figured she'd be home the next day," Colette says.
When Chris and Laurie Fleming arrived at the private family housing in Charlotte that the tournament had arranged for them, their hosts showed them to their room, and the two girls stayed up well past midnight, talking and laughing and watching television. Their parents had stayed in Fort Lauderdale, telling the girls to be sure to call when their matches were over.
When Colette answered the telephone the next afternoon, Chris excitedly told her she had beaten Françoise Durr, 6-1, 6-0. "You did?" Colette said. She promptly called Jimmy at Holiday Park. "Are you sure?" he asked.
Durr was the second-best clay court player in the world.
Chris's next opponent was Margaret Court, the queen of tennis the previous few months because of her just-completed calendar-year sweep of tennis's four major (or "Grand Slam") titles: the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open. Court was twenty-eight years old, she stood nearly six feet tall, and she was famously strong and fit. Her nickname on tour was "The Arm," given to her by five-foot-two Rosie Casals because of her seemingly post-to-post reach at the net. (Casals didn't have a florid imagination. When university researchers in England measured Court for a physiological study on athletes, they found Court's arms were indeed three inches longer than the average for a woman her size, and Court's grip strength was about the same as those of the male college athletes the researchers tested.)
Evert, who still stood only five feet two and was a shade over ninety pounds, shocked Court 7-6, 7-6, seizing both sets in tiebreakers. The slow clay court negated some of Court's power advantage, and Evert outrallied her from the baseline. She snapped off passing shots that left the champion flummoxed and standing at the net, disconsolately watching the ball blur by.
"No!" Colette exclaimed when Chris called home again.
"Let me get up off the floor!" Jimmy said when Chris told him the news. He and Colette caught a plane that night to Charlotte.
Evert lost the final in straight sets to Nancy Richey. But her performance didn't go unnoticed. The following summer, the United States Lawn Tennis Association invited Evert, now sixteen, to play in the 1971 Wightman Cup, an annual competition between the United States and Britain. Evert, the youngest player ever to appear in the competition, again showed a startling imperviousness to pressure. Evert led an American team playing without its two best players, Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals, to an unexpected 4-3 victory with wins in both of her singles matches. Evert dispatched Winnie Shaw, a six-time Cup veteran, 6-0, 6-4, and clinched the Cup by drubbing Virginia Wade, Britain's number one player, 6-1, 6-1, in just thirty-eight minutes.
American veteran Julie Heldman, a perennial top ten player, was sitting next to Evert on the sidelines during one particularly tense part of the competition. She remembers Evert turning to her and remarking, "Huh. My hands are sweating more than usual." Then, crinkling up her teenage face as if nerves were a completely new sensation, Evert added, "I must be reacting to the atmosphere."
Heldman just stared at her in disbelief.
When Evert also won the national eighteen-and-under junior title that summer, she landed her most prestigious invitation yet: a spot in the 1971 U.S. Open at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York. It would be her first Grand Slam tournament, and what happened there was so outrageous, it left her life and the sport of tennis irrevocably changed.
Only a few American teenagers had achieved renown in tennis before Evert, most notably Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly, a Californian who won the 1953 Grand Slam at eighteen but suffered a calamitous horseback riding accident less than a year later that forced her to retire by age twenty-one. But Evert was the first tennis phenom to come along after the 1968 start of tennis's Open era, a time when tournaments began offering aboveboard prize money and allowing amateurs to compete alongside pros for the first time.
In so many ways, the timing of Evert's arrival was impeccable.
The Virginia Slims circuit, the first pro tour for women, had just been founded one year earlier, in 1970, and its prize money and media coverage were all growing, thanks to the unstinting work of its brightest star, Billie Jean King. Unlike Connolly or even King, Evert enjoyed another inestimable advantage: her entire career, starting with her thunderclap debut at the 1971 U.S. Open, unfolded in the television age of sports.
During her scintillating debut at the U.S. Open that September, Evert went from a virtual unknown to an overnight sensation, a coast-to-coast curiosity. Spectators were stunned by her unfathomable calm under pressure, her expressionless game face, the surprising sting on her two-handed backhand for such a small player.
Everything about Evert was arresting, right down to the way she delicately splayed the fingers on her left hand as she lashed back forehand shots with her right.
The crowds packed the stadium court to see her as she tore to the semifinals, and newspaper and magazine editors ordered their writers to find out more. Who was this ponytailed high school junior with the hoop earrings, hair ribbons, and frilly white dresses of ruffles and lace? Where did she come from? How was she pulling off these implausible wins?
From the Everts' tidy three-bedroom ranch house on Northeast Seventh Place in Fort Lauderdale, Chris would make the five-block walk down the road and then over a well-worn path to Holiday Park, the city-owned complex where Jimmy Evert worked giving lessons, stringing rackets in a room off his tiny office, and presiding over one of the most distinguished tennis hotbeds in Florida.
"I can still see Jimmy working with Chrissie on Court Ten--that was his private teaching court--and I can still remember laughing and thinking to myself, 'Jimmy Evert has to be the most monotone instructor in the history of tennis,' " says Harold Solomon, one of seven Holiday Park regulars who went on to play the men's or women's pro tours. "Even after it was obvious how good Chrissie was, it was always interesting to watch Jimmy out there with her, never raising his voice, never changing the intonation, just always talking in that same flat monotone: 'Okay, good, Chris. Bend your knees. Great. Follow through. Yes . . . now do it like this.' He stressed endless repetition. Everything about him was calm and quiet. But once you were on the court, you knew there was no fooling around. To him the court was like the office. He had this presence that you just felt, even though he wasn't physically imposing."